Excuses can occur in every type of supervisor/employee interaction – from giving constructive feedback about a particular aspect of an employee’s performance through coaching an employee to help the employee improve performance in a specific area to discussing an employee’s past performance during a performance appraisal discussion. Excuses can also arise in interactions between peers, a team leader, and a team member. In short, excuses are likely to be encountered in almost any type of interaction situation and almost daily.
Three Most Common Methods to Handle Excuses
Despite their frequency, few supervisors know how to handle excuses effectively. The three most common and ineffective ways supervisors deal with excuses are:
- Accept the excuse outright without question,
- Discount the excuse by suggesting it’s not important, or
- Argue about the legitimacy of the excuse.
Why These Don’t Work
Accepting an excuse without question conveys that not accomplishing something as expected is acceptable. In short, it reinforces the further use of excuses. Discounting an excuse by suggesting it’s not important has the effect of temporarily removing the excuse from the discussion. But, because the excuse was not adequately dealt with, it will likely reappear later in the conversation. Discounting an excuse is analogous to placing the proverbial genie in a bottle and putting a cork in the opening. Sooner or later, the cork pops out, and the genie emerges again.
Here is an example of discounting an excuse:
Employee: “I hear what you’re saying, but I’ve always done it the other way.”
Supervisor: “Don’t worry about how you did it in the past. Just follow the new procedure I outlined for you.”
In this example, the supervisor minimized the excuse’s importance but did not adequately disarm it. As a result, the excuse is likely to reappear later in the same conversation or any subsequent conversations on the same topic. In addition, the employee is likely to feel personally discounted by the supervisor’s response, which, if true, will contribute to the deterioration of open communication between supervisor and employee.
The most common method supervisors use to disarm an excuse is to argue with the employee over its validity. Arguing happens because supervisors are primarily concerned with achieving results and have difficulty viewing any excuse as valid. While conducting more than 200 coaching and performance appraisal training programs during the past ten years, it was common to find several participants in every group who stated that they could not tolerate excuses. However, arguing about an excuse results in a win/lose struggle between supervisor and employee and refocuses the discussion away from the topic being discussed and onto the excuse. Here is an example of arguing about an excuse:
Employee: “Other people don’t meet all their deadlines, so I don’t see why you’re picking on me.”
Supervisor: “We’re not here to talk about other people! We’re here to talk about you and why you can’t seem to get your assignments completed on time!”
In this example, the supervisor’s response sets up a likely argument over whether or not other people miss deadlines. Moreover, if an argument ensues, the meeting focus shifts from the employee’s behavior to whether others do or don’t meet their deadlines. In addition, in any supervisor-employee argument, the supervisor is most likely to “win” and the employee “lose,” thus causing resentment and making the employee less likely to view his or her not meeting deadlines as a problem.
Types of Employee Excuses
If accepting, discounting, and arguing are ineffective ways to disarm excuses, the critical question is: “How should excuses be managed?” The answer is to disarm them immediately and permanently remove them from the discussion. However, before discussing how to remove an excuse from a discussion permanently, let’s first look at the different types of excuses. While there are countless excuses, they can be categorized according to one of the four types: diversions, discounts, denials, and half-truths.
DIVERSIONS are excuses that redirect blame for a performance problem back to the supervisor. Some examples include: “That’s not my job.” “I didn’t know that’s what you wanted.” “You never told me that.” “No one ever told me it was a priority.” “I thought someone else was going to do it.”
The employee says that the supervisor didn’t clarify their expectations in each of these examples.
DISCOUNTS are excuses that minimize the importance of a performance problem by referring to the past or pointing out that others behave in the same fashion. Some examples are: “It’s been done that way for years.” “I’ve never done it that way before.” “My previous boss never said anything to me about this.” “Other people do the same thing.”
In each of these examples, the employee says there isn’t a problem because there haven’t been similar expectations in the past.
DENIALS are outright rejections of any responsibility for a performance problem. Some examples include: “It’s not my fault.” “I hope you’re not blaming me.” “It didn’t happen on my shift.”
The employee says in these examples, “Don’t blame me for the problem because I had nothing to do with it.” In each of these examples, the employee says that while there might be a problem, it’s not my fault.
HALF-TRUTHS point out a possible obstacle as a cause for a performance problem. Some examples of half-truths are: “I got sick.” “I didn’t get the paperwork.” “I forgot.” “I didn’t have enough time.” “The equipment didn’t work.” “I had personal problems.” “I didn’t have enough help.”
In each of these examples, the employee says that some extenuating circumstance caused the performance problem. Check out this list for more examples of excuses and ways to respond.
How to Disarm Employee Excuses
As mentioned earlier, the key to managing excuses is to disarm them as quickly as possible and permanently remove them from the discussion. The trick, of course, is how to do this. Determining the type of excuse is the first step (i.e., whether the excuse is a diversion, discount, denial, or half-truth). Next, use one of the following two techniques to disarm and permanently remove the excuse from the discussion:
- Respond with Empathy – acknowledge the excuse by communicating an understanding of the employee’s feelings and point of view, and
- Reframe – turn the excuse into a problem-solving discussion that encourages the employee to examine their performance. Responding with empathy is particularly effective in handling excuses that fall into the diversion, discount, and half-truth categories, while reframing is helpful in handling denials.
In summary, excuses can occur in almost any type of interaction. However, despite their frequency, few supervisors know how to disarm excuses effectively and permanently remove them from a discussion. The first step in becoming more effective is determining the type of excuse: diversion, discount, denial, or half-truth. Next, respond to the excuse by
- Responding with Empathy – acknowledging the excuse by communicating an understanding of the employee’s feelings and point of view or
- Reframing – turning the excuse into a problem-solving discussion that encourages the employee to examine the performance situation.